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Film / Judgment at Nuremberg

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Judgment at Nuremberg is a 1961 Law Procedural which claims to be Based on a True Story, directed by Stanley Kramer, written (originally as an episode of Playhouse 90) by Abby Mann, and with an All-Star Cast featuring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Montgomery Clift, and Judy Garland.

The movie presents a fictionalized version of the "Judges' Trial" from the Anglo-American-Franco-Soviet International Military Tribunal (IMT) trials that took place at the German city of Nürnberg/Nuremberg in 1947. In this trial the IMT tried the fourteen defendants on charges of:

  • Participating in a common plan or conspiracy to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity.
  • War crimes through the abuse of the judicial and penal process, resulting in mass murder, torture, and plunder of private property.
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  • Crimes against humanity on the same grounds, including slave labor charges.
  • Membership in a Criminal Organization, whether the Nazi Party or SS.

In the fictional version presented in the film a panel of three U.S. judges, led by Chief Judge Dan Haywood (Tracy), must decide the fate of three German judges - among them Ernst Janning (Lancaster) - who are merely accused of "collaborating with the Nazis". Robert G. Moeller has recently (2013) argued that the characters and story were crafted to draw the greatest possible attention to the racially-divided, oppressive 'Jim Crow' policies of the USA itself at the time of its release (1961) by comparing and contrasting Nazi-German and American policies and values. The message is of course that the USA's value-differences are being betrayed by similar policies.


A pre-stardom William Shatner, still five years away from getting a gig on Star Trek, appears as an American officer who is a liaison with Judge Haywood.

This film contains examples of:

  • All Germans Are Nazis: Aside from the Jews, naturally, the film implies that (if not outright Nazis themselves) most German people at least went along with them. The defendants and others unconvincingly try to claim differently.
  • Amoral Attorney: Rolfe.
  • Armor-Piercing Response: The last line of dialogue in the movie, after Haywood visits Janning's cell, and Janning tries to justify himself and practically begs Haywood for a measure of forgiveness.
    Janning: Those people, those millions of people. I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it.
    Haywood: (with sorrow) Herr came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.
    • Another example came earlier in the film when Haywood was talking to the old German couple who worked at his house. They said they didn't know what Hitler was doing to the Jewish population, then asked "Even if we did know, what could we have done?" To which Haywood responds, "You said you didn't know." The old couple realized that Haywood saw through their hollow protestations of innocence, and it was clear that they were lying to themselves about not knowing, and were fully aware of their own complicity.
  • Big "SHUT UP!": Janning does this to Rolfe as he's badgering Irene Hoffman on the stand.
  • Book-Ends: The same Nazi marching song opens and closes the film.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: After the prosecution shows the extent of the Nazi regime's atrocities in court, the most bigoted and remorseless of the four defendants said "How dare they. We are judges not executioners." Ignoring the fact that executioners execute people that judges sentence to death.
    • The judge then turns to another prisoner, one of Eichmann's deputies, and asks how such things could be possible. The prisoner delivers a totally emotionless and detached lecture on the technical and logistical requirements for mass killings.
  • Easily Forgiven: One of the main thrusts of the film is that Germany and the German people were being a little too easily forgiven, as the democratic West was forging ties with West Germany, then the front line in the Cold War.
  • Groin Attack: A man testifies how he was forcibly sterilized on the grounds of alleged mental disability under the Nazi eugenics laws (partly in retaliation for him and his relatives fighting the Nazis, as they were Communists). Then it's uncomfortably noted how such laws were based on American laws of the time, ones upheld by the US Supreme Court.
  • Hanging Judge: Janning plays with this.
  • Head-in-the-Sand Management: Rolfe's thesis in his closing statement, in which he said that Germany and the Germans aren't the only ones to blame. The industrialists who sold arms to Hitler, the diplomats who made an agreement with him at Munich, the pope who signed an agreement with him, all share blame.
  • Heroic BSoD: Col. Lawson, after Rolfe destroys Rudolph Peterson on the stand.
  • Just Following Orders: Rolfe's defense of the judges amounts to this. "A judge does not make the laws; he carries out the laws of his country."
  • Law Procedural: Concerning the development of new law for prosecution of crimes against humanity.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Brought up in the film is the (genuine) fact that relations between Germans and Africans, and Germans and Jews, were criminalized as the act of "Miscegenation" in the 1935 Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor (Nuremberg Laws). The term, and laws, were derived from contemporary US state laws which were still in effect when the film was released. Janning sentenced a Jew to death under this law for alleged sex with an "Aryan" German woman.
  • Match Cut: A cut from Mrs. Bertholt pouring Dan a cup of coffee to Col. Lawson doing the same in his office.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Leads to a Not So Different argument, and Janning's Heel Realization.
  • Nazi Nobleman: Mrs. Bertholt describes her late husband as this.
  • Not So Different: A standard argument employed by German nationalists and sympathizers throughout the trials. This is part of Rolfe's argument when trying to defend his clients on the charges of their authorizing eugenic sterilization, asking one of the accused if he can identify a judicial opinion upholding a law allowing this before he reveals it was handed down by the US Supreme Court (this was Truth in Television, unfortunately).
    • There is a point about the "My country, right or wrong" doctrine which is proclaimed by nationalists, both German and American.
    • When Lawson testifies about hangings of children in concentration camps, the camera cuts to a closeup of a stone faced African-American MP, drawing an implicit parallel with lynchings.
  • Orbital Shot: Kramer was nervous about his long courtroom examination scenes coming across as boring on the screen. So he filled the movie with swooping, circling camera movement in and around the characters. The most extreme example of this, and the most famous shot in the movie, is the scene where the camera does a complete 360-degree orbit around Col. Lawson during his opening statement.
  • Politically Correct History: In-Universe, you can see the beginnings of the Clean Wehrmacht myth taking shape, and the narrative that Nazi atrocities were the work of a small group of fanatics is being used by the German people and the Americans to absolve the silent majority of the guilty.
    Col. Lawson: There are no Nazis in Germany, didn't you know that Judge? The Eskimos invaded Germany and took over, that's how all those terrible things happened. It wasn't the fault of the Germans, it was the fault of those damn Eskimos.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Rolfe tries to argue the German judges, especially Janning, were this. Naturally, Lawson doesn't agree.
  • Scenery Gorn: The film opens with Judge Haywood being driven through the streets of a bombed-out Nuremberg. His first line is "I didn't know it was so bad."
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Colonel Lawson was clearly affected by his experiences liberating concentration camps, and his zealousness prosecuting Nazis is likely inspired by the horrors he witnessed.
  • Tragic Villain: The concept itself is a major plot point, as it explores how the German people could be complicit in The Holocaust. Hans Rolfe argues that Ernst Janning, a once respectable jurist and legal expert, committed the crimes he did out of a sense of duty to a system that encouraged it. Judge Haywood does agree with Rolfe to a point-Janning was a tragic figure. But his defeat does not excuse him from the crimes against humanity he committed. The tragedy is that a respectable human being can be easily manipulated into committing atrocities.
  • Translation Convention: All of the German characters speak German at the beginning of the trial, with translation provided (and the judges and attorneys wearing headsets), until Kramer cuts to a close-up of Rolfe speaking. As he pulls back the camera, Rolfe starts speaking English, and from then on, so do the other German characters. They still act like they're speaking in different languages, using the translation headsets and such, which makes for some odd moments.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Well, there was a judges' trial, but every character and every detail of the trial process is fictional. Ernst Janning is a composite of three different judges who were tried. Also, the real Judges' Trial took place in 1947, but the film moves it to 1948 so that it can happen against the backdrop of the communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin Blockade, to explain why US authorities will go easy on the defendants-support from the Germans is needed.


Example of: